Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Master of Arts, Church History, Thesis
Abstract: This work examines the entrance of women to the American missionary endeavor as an act of contextualization, rather than subversion, of the Christian message for the woman's sphere. The first missionary wives opened new doors for women not out of a desire to reject antebellum evangelical ideas concerning gender roles, but rather out of a desire to submit to what they perceived to be God's will according to the social context within which they lived.
The evidence for this study comes from the five early 19th century memoirs of Harriet Newell, Ann Judson, Myra Allen, Harriet Winslow, and Eliza Jones, as well as numerous accounts of evangelical conversion from the 17th and 18th centuries. Significant research among secondary sources on the topics of evangelical conversion, antebellum reading and writing practices, the woman's sphere, and New Divinity theology is also included.
The thesis begins by examining the literary patterns and traditions of the evangelical conversion narrative, starting with the Puritans and concluding with the rise of antebellum evangelical publishing. It addresses the ways antebellum women in New England engaged the evangelical textual community from within their "sphere," as well as their engagement with ideas of benevolence, millennialism, and mission, creating a language of "usefulness." The thesis then proceeds to study the memoir of Harriet Newell as an example of women's literary engagement with usefulness and as the original missionary wife memoir. The study concludes by looking at four missionary wife memoirs which modeled themselves on Newell's memoir, providing an important glimpse into the contextualization of conversion and search for usefulness which led American women into the missionary cause.
A key question this thesis poses is how the conservative environment of antebellum evangelicalism opened doors for women to participate in the "public" cause of foreign missions. The answer centers on the writings of the first missionary wives as they sought spiritual fruit from their conversions in the idea of usefulness, enabling them to contextualize the Christian message and its antebellum emphasis on Christian action for the particular realities of their gendered contexts.